“I think you will,” the financier said with quiet assurance, “if I know you. There are terms, of course—”
She glanced at him sharply: the expression in those somber eyes was often alert like a wild animal’s, about to be attacked; only she had trained herself generally to keep the lids lowered.
“What are the terms?” she asked.
And as she spoke Francis Markrute thought of the black panther in the Zoo, which he was so fond of going to watch on Sunday mornings, she reminded him so of the beast at the moment.
He had been constrained up to this, but now, the question being one of business, all his natural ease of manner returned, and he sat down opposite her and blew rings of smoke from his cigar.
“The terms are that the boy Mirko, your half-brother, shall be provided for for life. He shall live with decent people, and have his talent properly cultivated—”
He stopped abruptly and remained silent.
Countess Shulski clasped her hands convulsively in her lap, and with all the pride and control of her voice there was a note of anguish, too, which would have touched any heart but one so firmly guarded as Francis Markrute’s.
“Ah, God!” she said so low that he could only just hear her, “I have paid the price of my body and soul once for them. It is too much to ask it of me a second time—”
“That is as you please,” said the financier.
He seldom made a mistake in his methods with people. He left nothing to chance; he led up the conversation to the right point, fired his bomb, and then showed absolute indifference. To display interest in a move, when one was really interested, was always a point to the adversary. He maintained interest could be simulated when necessary, but must never be shown when real. So he left his niece in silence, while she pondered over his bargain, knowing full well what would be the result. She got up from her chair and leaned upon the back of it, while her face looked white as death in the dying afternoon’s light.
“Can you realize what my life was like with Ladislaus?” she hissed. “A plaything for his brutal pleasures, to begin with; a decoy duck to trap the other men, I found afterwards; tortured and insulted from morning to night. I hated him always, but he seemed so kind beforehand—kind to my darling mother, whom you were leaving to die.”—Here Francis Markrute winced and a look of pain came into his hard face while he raised a hand in protest and then dropped it again, as his niece went on—“And she was beginning to be ill even at that time and we were so poor—so I married him.”
Then she swept toward the door with her empress air, the rather shabby, dark dress making a swirl behind her; and as she got there she turned and spoke again, with her hand on the bronze tracery of the fingerplate, making, unconsciously, a highly dramatic picture, as a sudden last ray of the sinking sun shot out and struck the glory of her hair, turning it to flame above her brow.